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Early centuries
16th - 17th century
17th century
18th century
Adjusting the boundaries
     British North America
     Doubling the American nation
     Transcontinental borders
     American and Mexican War
     Russian-American Company
     Dominion of Canada

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British North America: from1783

Under the terms agreed in Paris in 1783, the regions historically settled by the French now become the only remaining part of the British empire in America.

The territory along the St Lawrence, from Nova Scotia in the east to the Great Lakes, has been won by Britain from France at various stages during the 18th century. Known previously as New France, the official name for this region now becomes British North America - even though the population is predominantly French. However a more neutral name, Canada, also comes into informal use during the 18th century.


The first major immigration of British people into Canada occurs as a result of the American Revolution. The Loyalists, who have taken Britain's side in the war, have no future in the newly independent United States. In the years up to 1783 about 40,000 flee north into Canada. The majority (among them 1000 freed slaves) go to Nova Scotia, where there has been a British presence for several decades. About 10,000 choose the province of Quebec.

From 1784 Britain reorganizes her remaining north American colonies on a more practical basis. Because of the sudden influx of Loyalists, Nova Scotia is divided into three separate colonies by the formation of New Brunswick and Cape Breton (the latter is reunited with Nova Scotia in 1820).


More significant are the changes brought about by the Canadian Constitutional Act of 1791. This divides the province of Quebec into two halves - Upper Canada (equivalent to modern Ontario) and Lower Canada (modern Quebec). These two provinces are at the same time given a new constitution, with power shared between the governor (representing the crown), an appointed legislative council and an elected legislative assembly.

Lower Canada is the province with by far the highest proportion of French inhabitants. It soon becomes, and remains, the centre of French political aspirations within British North America.


Doubling the American nation: 1803-1819

During the Napoleonic wars, and as an indirect result of them, the territory of the United States is doubled. The immediate reason is Napoleon's half-hearted efforts to re-establish a French empire in the west, remembering the heady times half a century earlier when France laid claim to the entire vast region either side of the Mississippi.

The land to the east of the great river has been lost to Britain (and therefore subsequently to the United States) in the treaty of Paris in 1763. At the same time the unexplored and seemingly less valuable territory to the west of the river has been ceded by France to Spain. Though only half of the original French territory, it retains the name Louisiana.


In 1800 Napoleon forces an abject Spain to return Louisiana to France. In 1801 he takes a similarly resolute stance against the rebellion of Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti, sending out an army to restore order in this valuable French suguar-exporting colony. But by 1803 circumstances have diminished his appetite for western adventures.

In two years yellow fever reduces the French army in Haiti from 25,000 to 3000 men. At the same time the fragile peace of Amiens looks like breaking down. Needing money for a renewal of war against Britain, and fearing perhaps that the British might seize Lousiana for their own empire, Napoleon sells the entire region in 1803 to Thomas Jefferson's envoys in Paris.


The Louisiana Purchase has often and rightly been described as the greatest bargain in American history. The price for 828,000 square miles, more than doubling the previous size of the United States, is $15 million dollars. With interest, until the final settlement, the sum paid amounts in all to $27,267,622 - or thirty-three dollars a square mile.

Coincidentally preparations have recently been made in Washington for an expedition which will reveal, with a degree of scientific accuracy, just what is being purchased for the nation. Early in 1803 President Jefferson commissions Lewis and Clark to undertake their famous exploration, from the Mississippi to the Pacific and back.


The purchase of Louisiana has the added advantage of securing the port of New Orleans for the trading activities of the American settlers who are now beginning to flourish east of the Mississippi. If the mouth of the river were in hostile hands, these infant territories could easily be throttled.

For the same reason it is greatly in the US interest to win the coastline east from New Orleans. This is achieved in two stages. In 1813 the area known as West Florida is seized (to become the coastal region of Alabama), on the somewhat dubious grounds that it was in fact part of the Louisiana Purchase.


The Florida peninsula itself undoubtedly belongs to Spain, but American acquisition is simplified by the fact that Spain, during the War of 1812, is an ally of Britain in the European conflict against Napoleon. Andrew Jackson marches into Florida in 1812 but on this occasion has to withdraw. In 1818 he finds a reason to return (in pursuit of Indian parties raiding into Alabama). This time he seems set to stay.

The result is the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, by which Spain sells Florida to the USA for $5 million and the waiving of any American claim to Texas. This agreement completes the establishment of new transcontinental borders for the American nation.


Transcontinental borders: 1818-1819

The Louisiana Purchase, and the rich opportunities suggested by the findings of the Lewis and Clark expedition, focus American minds on the west - with the Pacific now the boundary of the nation's ambitions. In this new context continuing struggles against the British in Canada or the Spanish in Mexico can only be a distraction. In both directions demarcation lines are agreed before 1820.

In 1817, just three years after the last hostilities between British and Americans on the Canadian border, the Rush-Bagot agreement establishes very low levels of naval armament as the maximum for either nation on any of the Great Lakes.


This first precautionary peace-keeping measure is followed a year later, in 1818, by the agreement which has held good ever since - that the frontier between the two nations will run west from Lake of the Woods along the 49th parallel.

At this stage the border is drawn only as far as the Rockies. The region west of the continental divide (as yet virtually unsettled at this latitude by Europeans) is regarded for the moment as shared territory between the two nations. In 1846 it is ceded to the USA by Britain, recognizing as a fait accompli the human reality of the Oregon Trail. Since then the frontier has continued along the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific coast.


Meanwhile the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 has established an extensive southern frontier for the USA. It looks less logical than the straight line of the 49th parallel in the north, and it will later be subject to considerable adjustment, but for the moment it is a great benefit that it can at least be drawn on a map.

The new border runs from the Gulf of Mexico up the Sabine river, then goes west along the Red river, north up the 100th meridian, west along the Arkansas river, north up the Rockies and west along the 42nd parallel to the Pacific. With the territory north of this line acknowledged as theirs, Americans get down to the absorbing process of opening up the west.


Texas: 1821-1836

From the 16th century Texas, though much neglected, has been a northern region of Spanish Mexico, or New Spain. It is formally recognized as such in the border agreement of 1819, when any US claims to the territory are relinquished. Just two years later Mexico wins independence from Spain.

Later in 1821 a 27-year-old American, Stephen Austin, arrives in Texas with 300 families to establish a settlement. They are the first of many. By the early 1830s there are some 30,000 Americans in Texas and only about 7000 Mexicans. Friction would be inevitable in these circumstances, but it is aggravated by the issue of slavery.


The Americans, from the southern states, bring slaves to work the cotton plantations which they establish. The republican government of Mexico, outlawing slavery, places garrisons in Texas in an attempt to discipline the unruly colonists.

In 1835 the colonists rise in rebellion and capture San Antonio. The town is recovered in March 1836 by the Mexican commander, Santa Anna, apart from one building - the Alamo, an old Franciscan chapel in a walled complex, which is held by fewer than 200 Texans (among them Davy Crockett). In the most famous event of early Texan history, the defenders hold out for twelve days and account for 1000 or more Mexicans before themselves being overwhelmed and killed.


The fall of the Alamo is followed by a massacre at Goliad where 300 Texan soldiers, surrendering after a battle, are killed in cold blood on the orders of Santa Anna. The settlers have recently declared their independence, as the republic of Texas. It is a claim soon sealed by a convincing victory.

In April 1836 Sam Houston surprises Santa Anna's army taking a siesta near the San Jacinto river. In a brief skirmish his men kill 600 and capture another 200, including Santa Anna. With this event the tide turns. Mexico makes no further effort to suppress the Texan rebellion, while nevertheless denying the independence of the self-proclaimed republic - of which Houston is elected president.


In the United States, on the other hand, the new republic is immediately recognized. There is also a widespread feeling that Texas should be included in the union, as the colonists themselves wish. In the 1844 presidential campaign the Democratic candidate, James Polk, is elected on a platform supporting the annexation of Texas. In 1845 congress admits the Texan republic (by now home to 140,000 Americans) as the 28th state of the union, regardless of Mexico's undeniable claim to the region.

This in itself would be sufficient pretext for war. Another likely cause, unadmitted, is President Polk's yearning for yet more of Mexico - rich California. And there is also an unresolved dispute over the boundary of Texas.


American and Mexican War: 1846-1848

The Americans in Texas claim that the southern boundary of their province is the Rio Grande. The Mexicans maintain that it is the Nueces river, more than 100 miles to the north. War breaks out in 1846 when President Polk sends an American army under Zachary Taylor into the disputed region, prompting the Mexicans to take the same step in retaliation.

Taylor makes little progress into northern Mexico beyond the city of Monterrey, which he captures in September 1846. During that winter Polk tries another tactic. He sends an American army under Winfield Scott by sea to the Gulf of Mexico.


In March 1847 Scott takes the port of Veracruz after a three-week siege. He then marches inland and defeats Santa Anna (once again serving as Mexico's president) at Cerro Gordo. Though strongly opposed in the mountainous terrain, he reaches Mexico City. He enters the capital in September.

The resulting treaty, signed in Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, gives Polk all that he has hoped for. In return for a payment of $15 million, Mexico cedes to the USA the territory now forming the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. With suitable forethought, during the course of the war, US forces have already occupied the only developed parts of this vast region, New Mexico and California.


This treaty of 1848 establishes the southern border of the USA along the line which has prevailed ever since. Meanwhile, in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, the northern frontier with British North America has also been agreed. It runs along the 49th parallel to the Pacific coast, acknowledging as US territory the region which will become the states of Oregon (in 1859) and Washington (in 1889).

With these developments the boundaries of the entire continent north of Mexico are settled, except for a somewhat indeterminate one to the northwest of Canada in the remote and inhospitable regions of the Yukon. West of this natural frontier, in Alaska, the landlord in the mid-19th century is still the Russian tsar.


Russian-American Company: 1799-1867

From the discovery of Alaska on Bering's second voyage, in 1741 (see Bering's voyages), there has been consistent interest in the region from Russian fur traders and from ships of other European nations. Captain Cook explores the coast in 1778 and is followed in the next few years by British trading vessels. The French send a scientific expedition in 1786. Meanwhile the Spanish are indignant at all this intrusion, because they claim as their own the entire Pacific coast from Mexico to the extreme north of the continent.

The Russians, first in the region and most active in the Alaskan fur trade, take positive measures in 1799 to create a monopoly. They set up the Russian-American Company, with an imperial charter.


The company makes its headquarters at New Archangel (now Sitka). For a while an apparently viable small colony is established, with a shipbuilding industry of its own, but it gradually comes to seem a liability rather than an asset to Russia.

In 1855, when Russia is under pressure in the Crimean War, there is preliminary discussion of a possible sale of Alaska to the United States. Negotiations become delayed, from 1861, by another conflict, the American Civil War. Eventually a sale is agreed, in 1867, with the American secretary of state William H. Seward. The price is $7,200,000 (yet the controversial transaction is known for a while as 'Seward's Folly').


Alaska begins to develop economically with the first discovery of gold in 1880, and the process accelerates after the Klondike gold rush of 1897-8. The region is given territorial status in 1912 but does not achieve statehood until 1959, as the 49th state.

Meanwhile the year of the Alaska purchase, 1867, has seen the final end of the colonial era in North America - with the establishment of the dominion of Canada.


Dominion of Canada: 1864-1867

For some years the inhabitants of British North America have expressed discontent with their colonial status. And there has been continuing political friction between the British and French communities in the historic region along the St Lawrence river and north of the Great Lakes (merged from 1840 into a single colony as the Province of Canada).

The result is a conference, called in 1864, to discuss a possible federal union of all the provinces of British North America. The conference endorses the idea. But when it is put to the various assemblies during 1865, only the Province of Canada (by far the largest) votes in favour.


The British government, reacting with enthusiasm to a practical solution for a familiar colonial problem, exerts pressure on New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to join the scheme. So when the British North America Act is passed at Westminster, in 1867, four former colonies (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada now separated again into Ontario and Quebec) unite to form a new Canadian state - which formally comes into existence, on 1 July 1867, as the Dominion of Canada, with Ottawa as the capital city.

North America finally settles down into two great modern nations.


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